Saturday, March 31, 2007

Myths of the Ronald Reagan Presidency

Given what we know about George W. Bush and his disastrous presidency, the presidencies of Ronald Reagan and George H. W. Bush look relatively benign by comparison. Of course, both former presidents made mistakes and both pursued policies that most Democrats disagree with and both were lax on some ethical issues. Reagan, though, has an advantage over the senior Bush when it comes to memory and public relations.

Ken Silverstein of Harper's Magazine reminds us of some of the mythologies of the Reagan era:
Some years ago, I was talking to an older conservative woman about the Reagan era and she told me that whatever problems there were during that time, the president had been absolutely correct about one thing: “Something had to be done about the budget deficit.” Given that Reagan created what were then the biggest budget deficits in history, it was hard to imagine how she could say something so self-evidently ludicrous. Then Time magazine came along with a lengthy story on the supposed crisis of conservatism, with Reagan, weeping a single crystal tear, on the cover, and it becomes clear how such myths are born and flourish.

(snip)

... In addition to the Reagan deficits, which during his first two years in office alone soared from $80 billion to $200 billion (and which were even larger as a percentage of GDP than the Bush deficits), this supposed “Golden Age” of conservatism wasn’t known for law and order. As Sean Wilentz wrote in Rolling Stone last year, “The most scandal-ridden administration in the modern era, apart from Nixon's, was Ronald Reagan's, now widely remembered through a haze of nostalgia as a paragon of virtue. A total of twenty-nine Reagan officials . . . were convicted on charges stemming from the Iran-Contra affair, illegal lobbying, and a looting scandal inside the Department of Housing and Urban Development,” and three Cabinet members “left their posts under clouds of scandal.” ...

The senior Bush didn't do the American people any favors by granting pardons to officials who had worked for Reagan and were caught breaking the law. Currently, Bush Administration officials sometimes act as if they take for granted that the day will come when they are pardoned if they get into any trouble. That's a dangerous trend and invites more authoritarian, unlawful behavior.

The other thing about Reagan that shouldn't be forgotten is that things got seemingly easier during the 1980s as a result of the collapse of oil prices. The world wasn't finding enough oil to justify the prices, it was just producing enough oil to keep the oil prices low. In the long run, that will be seen by history as Reagan's biggest policy failure: doing nothing about the future of our energy independence. But then, Reagan had company: George H. W. Bush, Bill Clinton and George W. Bush have wasted a total of 18 years also ignoring the need to ensure energy for our future. The media has seen to it that we look at the last 26 years with a degree of nostalgia that frankly isn't justified. The United States has been coasting on its past successes for a long time now. Unless we start taking the future of our country more seriously, we may end up paying a heavy price for almost three decades of neglect. If it isn't already too late.

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